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9 June 2017

When Brand Development meets Emotional Intelligence: An Interview with Ewen Haldane from The School of Life

 When Brand Development meets Emotional Intelligence:  An Interview with Ewen Haldane from The School of Life

Looking into London business best practices, the companies at the top of their game show innovative approaches to productivity. It’s not only about having a team of experts and working incessantly for long hours. What makes a difference is, for example, developing emotional agility to establish meaningful leadership role models. A coherent brand development plan is crucial when the reputation and message behind a project are more influential than ads.

That’s why we interviewed Ewen Haldane, Business Director at The School of Life, to gain an insight on what brand development means nowadays. Founded in 2008 by philosopher and author Alain de Botton (How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Course of Love), The School of Life is a global organisation dedicated to making the world more emotionally intelligent.
For the sceptical who are wondering about how those techniques can be applied to work, they will be surprised to discover how much psychology, philosophy and culture influence business practices. Ewen discusses with us brand development and meaningful purpose in business, including examples of collaborations with MINI and Doubletree by Hilton.
Q: How did The School of Life come up with the idea for a business section?
A: We have always had the ambition to reach the largest number of people we can with our ideas. Partnering with businesses means that we can get our ideas out at a scale that’s far greater than simply through talks and events.  
Q: Why is applying emotional intelligence at work important and what lasting changes can it bring?
A: The evidence is pretty clear that when it comes to work, as the late, great management thinker Peter Drucker said, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’.  In other words, the soft skills, particularly of the leadership team, have a far greater long-term effect on business success than the ‘hard’ skills. That’s going to be ever truer as automation and robotics mean that many companies continue to replace the more routine parts of work. 
The most valuable skills will be those which are truly human,  including creative thinking, empathy and the ability to collaborate.  We like to think that most work challenges are of a strategic nature, but in reality, companies are just collections of individuals, and individuals are just collections of psychological challenges and complexities. It’s around the psychological side of working life that the most forward thinking companies are spending their time. 
Q: What psychological obstacles can hold back productivity and how can employers avoid these?
A: There are so many to choose from. We are all liable to feel defensive at times, to feel like we’re imposters, to play office politics, to lack resilience when things go wrong, or to feel that we aren’t capable of thinking creatively.  But, to pick on just one, many of us often get into a state of denial at work. For example, we might not pass on crucial information, even when we know we ought to, because we fear that we’ll meet with a negative reaction that we won’t be able to deal with. 
That kind of thinking might have its roots in early childhood experiences where a parent was unable to absorb and deal confidently with something challenging. We carry that same fear into the workplace, where we might do anything to avoid giving ‘mum’ or the boss some bad news. That can be disastrous for the business, of course, when that kind of behaviour is played out across many levels of an organisation. 
Q: What are the key factors you focus on while working with a company for brand development? For example, in the collaboration with MINI?
A: We always start by exploring the wider purpose of the brand, what area of broader life are they focused on helping people with?  We are particularly concerned with helping customers improve their emotional intelligence, so we’ll explore with the brand what that might look like in their situation. 
In the case of MINI, for example, they were interested in helping customers explore what it means to be a gentleman today, what are the new behavioural ‘rules’ for men that are, more often than not, ‘unwritten’? Brands don’t just stand for physical or functional features, they also represent emotional features, too.
That’s often what consumers are really buying into, especially in the automotive category where, at a functional level, most cars perform at a very similar level today. MINI represents independence, elegance and quirky charm – we helped them to bring those emotional attributes to life in a more tangible way. 
Q: What are the strategies to avoid in order not to disengage customers looking for meaningful business practices?
A: There needs to be a fundamental coherence between what the brand is saying and what it does behind the scenes. Especially today where the employee experience at a brand is so transparent because of sites like Glassdoor. Almost any brand can hire a good creative ad agency to produce adverts that are highly emotionally intelligent, but if that doesn’t reflect how the brand itself operates, then the dissonance is very obvious. 
For example, VW came out with an ad barely 6 months after their emissions scandal based around ‘keeping promises’ – that’s not a smart move.  Adverts should act like windows into the business, not masks. To that extent, some brands might consider investing much more in innovating in new products and services than in marketing and advertising. 
Secondly, being meaningful or purpose led doesn’t mean that you need to be worthy in your communications either – even when brands are doing things that are great for the planet, consumers engage more with brands who wear their sustainable credentials lightly and with a sense of humour, Patagonia does this very well for example.
And finally, sometimes brands get it wrong, and many CEOs would do well to master the art of the genuine apology – American Airlines got it badly wrong recently but their initial half-hearted apology made things even worse.
Q: You have worked in the past with prestigious hotel chains, including Doubletree by Hilton and Rocco Forte Hotels. What challenges have you encountered working with clients in the hospitality industry?
A: In the premium hotel category, it’s very hard to differentiate if you just focus on communicating the physical aspects of your building – for example, through talking about the thread count of the sheets, the variety of cocktails in the bar, the number of swimming pools etc.  Those things are important, of course, but only as hygiene factors because everyone has those things, too.
Hotels are also there to serve some higher needs. We often feel lonely in hotels, or they can act as much needed sanctuaries for us to take stock and reflect on our lives.  Hotels that can demonstrate how when we leave we’ll be a better person in some way (rather than just having had a nice massage or spent less money) will be the ones that stick in our memories and that we book next time, and talk to friends about. 
For more info about Brand Development  and The School of Life, you can find out more on https://www.theschooloflife.com/london/business/brand-development/  or emailing ewen@theschooloflife.com 
Interview by Elena Losavio

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